CLEVELAND -- Believe me, it's not easy being a sports fan when you're from Cleveland and living in Baltimore. Albert Belle? Can deal with him, sort of. I root for the O's. But Art Modell? Can't deal with him at all. Couldn't possibly root for the Ravens. Ever.
So I arrived here last Wednesday to get my football fix in Cleveland, my boyhood home, a place splashed with orange and brown and foamy beer, where people are preparing for the biggest party in a long, long time.
The Cleveland Browns, thank the Lord, are back.
And, I (who have not covered a sporting event in a decade) have scammed a media pass to the first real Browns game since Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore three years ago.
Not only that, the Browns are playing the Steelers.
Can't deal with the Steelers.
"I waited my whole life -- OK, the last three years -- for this," says Pat Teresi, 29, who, with his friend Mal Dakeduk, 23, will begin tailgating near Cleveland Browns Stadium beginning on Thursday. That's tailgating since Thursday. For a Sunday night game.
"Add the Steelers and, oh, man ..."
Like in Baltimore, Clevelanders are extravagant tailgaters. They arrive in recreational vehicles, many of them rented just for the occasion. They bring gas grills and stereo systems. Banners. Dawg masks. Beer. Lots of beer.
Before game time, they are barking, what they've done since the mid-'80s when fans took on the nickname the "Dawgs." One man dressed as a dog wears a helmet with a roll of Steelers toilet paper attached to it.
Turns out we have a mutual friend.
One of the benefits of growing up in a blue-collar town is people you have known since you ate dirt are still around when you come home. I grew up in Brook Park, a little suburb adjacent to Cleveland, where most people work at either Ford or GM or hitch on with the city or the gas company or some place like that.
They have jobs tougher than attending football games on the company dollar. It gets mighty cold here in the winter, but the work doesn't stop, even the outside work. That's one of the reasons the Browns have been so important to this town: Without them, the winters are not broken into little, manageable, Sunday-to-Sunday units, but instead are long, extensive, miserable stretches of ice and snow and frozen nose hairs.
A Browns loss can ruin an entire week -- but there's always next Sunday. A Browns victory can make you laugh at those 2-feet-of-snow-in-an-hour blizzards.
"My kids could say 'Go Browns!' before they could say 'mom and dad,' " says Dale Darrow, 56, who on Saturday was at a bar in the Flats, a district near the stadium. "And that's no lie," he adds -- but it should be pointed out he had long ago finished his first 32-ounce bottle of Bud Light.
I like talking to people like Dale Darrow but a good chunk of my time here will be spent talking with my friend Joe. His wife is more tolerant than most, so I know he'll be allowed to explore the town with me even though she knows we'll get to talking and end the nights somewhat -- how shall we say? -- unsober.
When we were kids, Joe and I went to the old Browns stadium and bought tickets from a scalper. It wasn't until the scalper was long-gone with our money that we realized the tickets were to the previous week's game.
We circled the gates of that leaky stadium and looked for the absolute oldest ticket-taker we could find. "If this doesn't work," we promised each other, "we tell nobody. Nobody." (We found a guy who couldn't have seen a hashmark if he were laying on the 20-yardline. It worked.)
This story comes up while we're driving into downtown. My job is to chronicle the return of the Browns, putting to use my experience dealing with these fans, the most rabid people I have ever known. Thanks to the Baltimore Browns Backers, I have heard there is a new beer being brewed honoring the new Browns. It is called Cleveland Browns Expansion Draft. Being a serious member of the working press, I don't feel I could write about the beer without tasting it.
"We can't make it fast enough -- unfortunately," says Chris Livingston, whose Crooked River Brewery makes the beer. He punches his calculator. "I'd say we've sold 5,000 cases a month."
Then he asks sarcastically: "How's my friend Art?"
Everybody here hates Art.
(Let's do away with something right here: Clevelanders do not hate people from Baltimore. They believe that Colts owner Bob Irsay acted like a malicious weasel and they know the NFL inexplicably and inexcusably passed over Baltimore for expansion teams in Charlotte and Tampa Bay. And they know they got lucky to win their own expansion team after only three years. No, their bitterness has been reserved for Modell.)
There are a million stories. When we were in high school, we used to corral as many buddies as we could and all chip in to rent the kind of hotel room that sold by the hour. We'd fill the bathtubs with ice and beer, watch Mike Pruitt and Mike Baab and Brian Sipe and Ozzie Newsome.
There were more innocent days. When I was 13, my little brother found $45. I talked him into buying us tickets to see the Browns and 49ers play each other.
Like mother, like son
My mother, too, has always been an insane Browns fan. Back in those beautiful days when most of the games were carried only on the radio, she had a clinical inability to merely listen to the games. She would turn up the radio voice of the Browns, Gib Shanley, and clean. She raised five boys, a husband and a dog, and on Saturdays and Mondays sometimes the house looked like it. But on Sundays? It sparkled.
When my next-door neighbor and I were about 14, we got free tickets to see the Browns play the Oilers. It was the last game of the season, the Browns were seriously bad, but we ponied up the 35 cents for the train and we saw Billy White Shoes Johnson do his rubber-legged dance in the endzone. It was so cold the Browns served free chicken broth in the concourses. I don't remember it, but my neighbor claims we poured it over our feet.
I love all these tales, memories of the Browns from when we were 8, 13, 18, 30, about what the Browns meant to us, what it means having them back.
They meant the world to us. They mean the world to us again.
My father died a few months after Modell did wrong. I remember, clearly, trudging up to my dad's grave at Holy Cross Cemetery, my eyes bleary from the tears. It was cold and snowy and miserable, and the bagpiper only made things more wrenching. (Here's a hint: If you're in need of a good cry, get yourself a dead Irish father and a merciless bagpiper, and let him blow.)
The day, of course, was brutal. But then, just a patch of white over from my father's grave, I looked up and saw it: A Browns flag was planted in the snow next to a tombstone. It made me smile. I think it was the irrelevance and the permanence of it all. So many people in this town are defined in life by the Browns. This soul was defined as a Browns fan even in death.
I went back to visit my father's grave on Saturday. I went alone, as I always do. I paid my respects, and I looked for the Browns' flag. Two sections over there it was. This time, I went to that grave and looked down: "Patrick G. Felder, 1960-1987." Not 30 years old.
I wondered about him. Wondered who put that flag down, wondered what family and friends he left behind, the ones who wouldn't have him sitting with them as they watched the Browns return. He doesn't get to see it, I thought.
Matter of passion
See, football isn't as serious as life and death. But football, at least in Cleveland, is about finding a passion, sharing some good times, teaming up. I have a feeling that's the case in Baltimore, too, though I'll never know it. I love the town, have friends who I adore there, but I never poured broth on my feet at a Ravens game.
Yesterday, I went back to Pat and Mal, the marathon tailgaters. They are living. They are laughing and friends are meeting them at their RV, and they are cooking hamburgers and remember growing up as Browns fans.
Friends who I had grown up with are across the lot, tailgating too. I meet some people I knew from Ohio University, where I crammed four years of college into six years. We toast, swap some stories. Then I go to meet Joe and his tolerant wife and some other friends who have tickets.
God knows I love the tailgaters. God knows I love football and the Browns. But what I really love is the stories, the way an entirely positive mob mentality can take over thousands of people at once, how people who are lonely when it's not football season are suddenly part of it all.
What I really love are these memories that bind you to people in a way that can never be severed, even by something like an owner's greed and disloyalty.
The tailgating by this time is like Mardi Gras. It is booze and beer and a dancer named Viva! from the Circus strip bar. It is laughter and more stories and cheering and barking and more stories and more.
But it's time to walk to the stadium, where there's a party in there, too.
The stadium resembles a revival. Fans are cheering, hating the Steelers, loving the Browns. We lose the toss and there is booing. And then cheering. Like mad. I imagine this is what it must feel like at the end of a war. But, alas, something is missing.
I know what to do. There goes the kickoff. There go a million flashbulbs, snapping off as fast as the memories. I need more. I need to slap a few buttons on this computer, transmit this story, and go down to the stands.
We'll be telling stories about this night for years. And I want to be with my buddies.